It is of course perfectly legitimate to level criticism at the absenteeism and leadership style of a director who is much in demand. A similar debate raged during Johan Simon’s years. An artistic leader with international prestige can open a lot of doors but can also negatively impact the daily workings of a city theatre.
Neoliberal production company
You could ask why this discussion about leadership has to be taken to the papers, where it is turned into a public debate. Has the NTGent staff even been consulted, especially the other artists in residence on behalf of whom Perceval and co. seem to be speaking? Contrary to what the trio (and the Limburg theatre company Het Nieuwstedelijk in a reaction in De Standaard) leads us to believe, the Ghent city theatre’s collaborations with artists like Lara Staal, Luanda Casella and Miet Warlop do span multiple years. Why haven’t they signed the manifesto? Can they be called mere ‘passers-by’, ‘who – fearing to compromise their already slim chances – barely dare to raise their voice’ in a ‘production company’ with ‘neoliberal’ traits (as the Ghent Manifesto 2.0 mentions)?
In their text, the three authors also relate to an ongoing discussion about the precarious living conditions of performing artists in Flanders. Their interest in, and concern for, their less fortunate colleagues (many of whom are dangerously close to the poverty line) is praiseworthy. Yet this is such a broad issue, and one that touches on so many aspects of today’s Flemish theatre system, that one city theatre in and of itself cannot leave much of a mark on it – especially if it doesn’t have the big budgets of its average German counterpart, which Perceval has gotten to know very well the past decade.
Perceval’s Toneelhuis 2.0
Which model does the trio propose, then? Their own artistic careers seem to be pointing in the direction of the fixed actors ensemble, managed by house directors for each production. Yet their manifesto remains ambiguous in this respect, not in the least because it refers both to ‘actors/theatre makers’ and ‘the position of the actor’. Which fixed ensemble do the authors have in mind? The actors ensemble that typified the Antwerp city theatre Toneelhuis under Perceval’s direction (1998-2005) or the ensemble of theatre makers (each bringing their own artistic collaborators) of Guy Cassiers’ Toneelhuis (2006-2021)?
Perceval’s Toneelhuis 2.0 doesn’t seem a good alternative in any case, because it fails to provide an adequate answer to today’s broader issue of artists’ precarity. After all, while it might solve the issue for a few actors, it would exacerbate the problem for other actors and makers, whose chances to work at an institution like NTGent would become even slimmer. The idea of an actor being employed by one company for an entire year works better for a German city theatre anyway, where the same plays return month after month as repertoire pieces.
The absence of this kind of repertoire system in Flanders comes with some disadvantages, but it has a lot of advantages, too. In Flanders, actors tend to do more than merely ‘execute’ the ideas of theatre directors (yet another thing that the trio faults Rau’s NTGent for). Many young performance artists – actors and makers alike – find that a permanent contract is not necessarily compatible with artistic freedom, as became apparent from an article that appeared in De Standaard the day after the manifesto of Perceval and co.
This greater artistic and administrative agility should (in principle!) also make it easier for Flemish city theatres to respond to the growing demand for more representativeness on stage in terms of gender, language, sexual preference and ethnic-cultural background. Though a lot of people are drawn to performing arts based on (1) the director’s vision, (2) the actors ensemble and (3) repertoire texts, and though it can be extremely interesting indeed, it is by no means for everyone.
Perceval, Luppes and Van Rompay have sharpened their pens for a rearguard fight. In their manifesto, they claim that Rau’s NTGent doesn’t live up to its own promise of being ‘the city theatre of the future’. Indeed, there’s a lot to be said about the gap between that overconfident statement and the day-to-day reality. The actors themselves, though, seem to be defending a model for the city theatre of the past.
Translation: Lies Xhonneux